Letter from Kathmandu - Muddy monsoon mayhem
By: Jo Chaffer, posted
Welcome back to my small slice of life in the shadow of the Himalaya. The last few months have been turbulent on a whole new scale.
My personal turbulence happened with a trip back to the UK and Germany in July, visiting many, many good friends, family and even the KE office for a quick catch up on life from the sales side. It was so wonderful to be back amongst people most dear to me, trotting about in the Lakeland hills, drinking a decent pint, loading up on bacon butties and punnets full of berries. There were a few moments of reverse culture shock too: having to speed up to London walking pace (the Nepalese dawdle incredibly), a moment of fear just about to bite into an unsterilized apple, and remembering how to speak with an unrestricted vocabulary base. Then coming back to the relative solitude of my flat and the daily struggles of life here in the horn-blasted, fume filled, damp and muddy streets of the chaotic capital and having to move up / down gears to readjust. It all got a bit tricky and sad for a while.
Next came the news of big floods in Pakistan and Ladakh: big worries for friends in Leh, especially the kids and staff at the Lingshed Area Children’s Hostel outside Leh that I’ve worked with over the past years through the Juniper Trust. Luckily everyone is safe although irrevocably affected by loss of land, homes and income……… and with deeply uncertain futures ahead, particularly as the harsh winter draws closer.
Here in Nepal there have also been severe floods and landslides across the lower hill regions – many of the newly constructed roads, lodges and houses have simply slipped away or disappeared under meters of sludge. Even getting out for runs and rides round Kathmandu the sheer power of water to reshape and destroy has been apparent: one day a track, next day a heap of broken trees and mud split by huge gaping crevasses; then the main road blocked by fallen tangles of wires lethally fizzing on the damp ground; traffic carefully picking its way round meter deep puddles concealing collapsed sewers. Life was temporary and fragile. And filthy.
But not everywhere.
In the valley outside my house gangs of men were dredging the rivers for silt to bank up the verdant, flourishing paddies. Brightly sari-ed women were hoeing, picking and planting as crops leapt up in every suburban gap and valley terrace. Parts of the outside world were very, very green and thriving with activity.
I was lucky enough to be out in the middle of it all, finding new corners and meeting the locals, with the help of a great team of young Nepali photographers and riders. We spent the last 6 months and more capturing images of life riding the roads, rivers and wild places, visually telling the story of Nepal today. The result is a unique series of pictures collected into a calendar that, fingers crossed, will be printed on sale next month. It’s been a twisting and very uppy-downy journey!
‘Ride Nepal’ started one lazy spring afternoon, sat around a dinner table with my friends Navin and Rabina Joshi, our bellies full of Rabina’s delicious dhal bhaat, heads brimming with ideas and that creative itchy-scratchy feeling of somethingexcitingcomingtogether. They: designer-producers extraordinaire, me: buzzing from yetanotheramazingvalleyride in need of a purpose. The result: a cunning (!) plan for a new publication bringing Nepal and biking together.
Our initial thoughts were to capture Nepal’s hardest rides. However we quickly realised that we had nowhere near enough time, cash or talent to get out with the hardest bikers on the monster rides. And actually that wasn’t what it was all about: every bike ‘zine in the world has big-air, masked-rider-in-impossible-positions shots. We wanted something new and shiny and different. Ride Nepal is about the unexpected, the battles and big fun of non-superhuman riding in exotic and demanding places.
The subsequent ‘making-of’ journey has, for me, been a way into Nepali society and culture: finding ‘the right’ photographers has opened up creative circles, in getting ‘the right’ locations I’ve seen corners of the country that previously passed me by, I’ve had to deal with situations and issues that have really challenged me but I’ve also got to know some great people.
I was initially pretty nervous about approaching local riders to get involved: they’re a pretty hardcore lot and I worried that they’d either want lots of cash or find it all a bit silly. I’ve been so pleased to be wrong: the Bike Station team, Nirjala, China, Subash and the rest are some of the loveliest lads and lasses, willing to interrupt their usual rides out for a few hours of patiently repeating short sections as photographers point and make demands.
Our first shots were with my old friend China Bikram Lama repeating his infamous descent of the steps of Swayambunath – the Monkey Temple. We spent a very entertaining couple of mornings shooting beneath the shining temple domes with input from variously a bunch of cheeky monks, an elderly Tibetan couple, a unit from the Nepal Army and hundreds and hundreds of monkeys.
So evolved our pattern of work: get out and ride for locations, gather the photographers and riders, pray for good weather and no strike. At least twice a week and all before the working day (we had some very early starts) but it was a great feeling to be out and about working with locals on their patch. With time racing on, strikes and illness interrupting us, we were never able to get out to the big mountains with our team for those all important Himalaya shots. But luckily we knew a man that did: Chhimi Gurung, founder of Dawn till Dusk and the Nepal Cycling Association. A man whose energy and astuteness has driven the Nepali bike scene from nothing to its current level: host of the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in 2012. He’s a cult figure here, but saved the day for Ride Nepal with his generosity and understanding, offering us access to his phenomenal image bank, collected from every corner of the country.
Despite all our efforts we got to a point in May when it all started to look impossible. The monsoon was just around the corner and we still needed a handful of shots. I was losing confidence and about to give up when two things happened: the rains held off for a fortnight and Nirjala Tamrakar came on board. Nirjala is Nepal’s leading lady biker. She has beauty, power and determination. And awesome bike skills. She wins races and represents her country at the highest levels. Yet this being Nepal, Nirjala does this all with minimal support from the government or anyone else (any sponsors out there, please take note!). And she’s totally nice too! Suddenly we were there – all the shots gathered.
Navin and his team cracked on with the design and, many late night cups of coffee later, we now have a beautiful, insightful calendar currently winging its way to the printers.
Although we have the final cycle still to come – 'peddling' of a different sort – it feels great to have got something solid and tangible that, as much as it tells the story of Nepal and riding here, seems also to me to tell the story of my time here too. It helps me understand why I’m here and what it all – good and bad – means.
If you’re interested in hanging Ride Nepal on your walls – or you have a friend who would – please get in touch with Jo. The calendar is on sale in Nepal and we can post / ship to the UK and anywhere else in the world.
Next I’m off to some real pedalling: across Tibet from Lhasa back to Kathmandu. Although the biking here in Nepal can be awesome I have to say that I’m really looking forward to miles and miles of smooth black-top and big open skies for mind-wandering, steady-away, alpine style climbing…………. A smooth ride after so many bumps and bruises will be most pleasant!